A tale of two mayors
Newsom and Brown share a stage but not a spotlight

By Matthew Hirsch

It was an annual event at which the Oakland and San Francisco mayors were supposed to share a stage and equal billing. But through a combination of ideological, generational, and media-generated circumstances, the spotlight seemed to shine a bit brighter on one of the men this year.

Striding into the Oakland Convention Center to deliver a speech on the Bay Area's economy, Oakland mayor Jerry Brown was swarmed by reporters and cameramen who, he quickly realized, were more interested in his thoughts on his neighbor across the bay: San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom. Thus began the Mayors' Economic Forecast, a Feb. 25 breakfast gathering of about 800 Bay Area businesspeople.

With Newsom's popularity soaring, he seemed to upstage Brown, even in downtown Oakland and in the midst of Brown's early campaign for state attorney general. Such is the fickle nature of the local press, which seized on a minor development in the labor negotiations at San Francisco's luxury hotels to pepper Newsom with the same questions he's been hearing for months.

Most interesting about the event, a rare public appearance featuring both Newsom and Brown, was that it brought together two big-city mayors who are crossing paths on the political spectrum. Brown has moderated his early staunch liberal approach since becoming mayor, while Newsom, elected as a business-backed centrist, has made a few bold moves to his left.

And their intertwining narratives extend back even further. The two share a deep family connection – dating to when William Newsom Sr., Gavin's grandfather, managed Jerry's father Pat Brown's campaign for San Francisco district attorney in 1943.

In those days, the Browns were regular guests at the Newsoms' Marina District home, which gave them a youthful glimpse of Jerry Brown the politician. "[Jerry] would come around and shoot hoops with the boys on the block, telling them to tell their fathers to vote Pat Brown for D.A.," William Newsom Jr., Gavin's father, told the Bay Guardian.

Later, after Pat Brown was elected governor of California, he and Newsom Sr. had a falling out over the controversial 1960 execution of Caryl Chessman, who was convicted in a series of kidnapping and rape cases in Los Angeles. "My father was furious with Brown," said Newsom Jr., a retired appellate court judge who, like his father (and son), is an ardent opponent of capital punishment.

The dispute over the Chessman execution, for which Pat Brown said he was unable to commute the death sentence, ruined the friends' relationship. But the bond between families endured.

That was evident while observing mayors Newsom and Brown, who expressed admiration for one another in separate interviews with the Bay Guardian. Though they are a generation apart in age, both reached powerful positions in government at an early stage in life. In 1975, Brown was elected governor of California at 36, the same age at which Newsom became San Francisco mayor last year.

And a little-remembered fact about Brown's first year in office: like Newsom, he made an impact on the gay rights movement, signing legislation that decriminalized adultery, oral sex, and sodomy between consenting adults. Two years later Brown also signed a law that defined marriage as "a personal relation arising out of a civil contract between a man and a woman," though that hardly changed the perception of "Governor Moonbeam" as a flaming liberal.

Now Brown has diverted his focus from some of the ideals that shaped his political identity in the '70s. He's no longer a radical environmentalist, at least insofar as downtown Oakland is concerned, and he's promoting aggressive policies on crime as part of an appeal to statewide voters (see sidebar).

"I've become the progressive. He's become the moderate. Our paths just crossed in the night," Newsom told us.

When asked if he's ever spoken with Brown about same-sex marriage, Newsom said no. But Newsom credited Brown for giving him advice during his 2003 run for mayor against Matt Gonzalez and Angela Alioto, a close friend of Brown's.

Alioto, who endorsed Newsom in the runoff against Gonzalez after finishing third in the general election, told us Brown didn't influence her decision to support Newsom. And Brown said he couldn't recall Newsom seeking advice from him at all.

"Almost no one asks me for advice," Brown told us. "My sister doesn't ask me for advice. The politicians in Oakland don't ask me for advice ... I don't know why. I have a lot of experience."

In fact, as Brown was being interviewed before his speech on the local economy, San Francisco Chronicle reporter Rachel Gordon asked him to assess Newsom's handling of the hotel negotiations. Brown said he supports Newsom's decision to back the union. He also said any business that's driven away by the labor dispute is welcome in Oakland.

Publicly, that's how these men deal with the fact that San Francisco and Oakland compete for economic development dollars, which affect Newsom's ability to close San Francisco's budget deficit and Brown's residential housing initiative. They joke about it.

In his speech to the gathering of businesspeople, Newsom noted that 2 of 20 companies that moved their headquarters to San Francisco in the past year came from Oakland. Then, following the event, he made it into a friendly competition with Brown.

"I didn't give him as hard a time as he gave me last year," Newsom said, referring to the companies that went east on the Bay Bridge in 2003.

What do the Newsom-Brown family ties say about the two mayors?

Bruce Cain, a political scientist at UC Berkeley, told us it raises questions about the narrative of Newsom's emergence in San Francisco politics. The media explored how the Getty family influenced Newsom, he said, but didn't as thoroughly examine how Newsom's own father contributed to his success. (As governor, Jerry Brown appointed Newsom Jr. to the state appellate court. Newsom Jr. also ran once, unsuccessfully, for the state senate.)

"It makes you wonder whether the story [about Newsom] is actually right," Cain told us. "What do we know about what Bill Newsom did to get Gavin elected? Is it really true that he just sat on the sidelines?"

From a purely meritocratic, democratic ideal, Cain said, it's unsettling for family connections and names to mean so much in politics. "It's amazing in a state that is so big and so diverse that a small number of families end up in power and helping each other all the time."

E-mail Matthew Hirsch